You are in the supermarket busy buying your week’s groceries. What was meant to be a short trip to the store was becoming a time consuming, label reading fail and an unpleasant shopping experience, to say the least. Calories, saturated fats, sodium - the list goes on. Furthermore, the questions that keep going through your mind are:

What do they mean? 

Why is it important to know what they stand for?

What effect will these ingredients have on me or my family’s health?

Food Labelling unpacked
Shopping for healthy foods can be tricky if you don't have a basic understanding of how they label foods - Image by Edward on Pexels

We understand that this can be a frustrating experience and basic comprehension around food labels can make your life a lot easier because you'll feel informed to make better food choices for you and your family.

If you are here to learn more about how to read a food label, you have come to the right place.

Why Food Labelling is Necessary

There are certain regulations when it comes to food labelling in each country and South Africa is no different. What this means is that certain information must be indicated on packaged foods.

You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, this is very relevant when it comes to the food we buy on a daily basis, because filtering what you buy will ultimately impact your health.

Find the right nutrients
If you want to eat better, you'll have to become specific and detailed about the foods you need to try and avoid - Image by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

In the past, South African consumers were misled through marketing tactics. Some companies would fail to disclose hidden ingredients while ‘selling’ half truths through their messaging and labels. Luckily, South Africa introduced a new label law in 2010 to protect its consumers.

Since then, any packaged goods and foods are required to include the following compulsory information:

  • Country of origin, where the product is produced and packaged
  • A product title which is accurate and informs the customer what exactly is in the packaging
  • The list of all ingredients and materials in the product. They are usually listed in descending order of mass
  • The amount of a certain ingredient or the total amount of the ingredient that is emphasised on the label (e.g. If a product is called an olive oil spread, the % amount of olive oil inside the product must be stipulated)
  • Directions of use
  • Any allergens need to be listed
  • Batch identification number
  • Expiry date / Best before date / Use by date
  • Special storage conditions
  • A nutritional information table in the prescribed format
  • The manufacturer or distributor name and address
  • The net weight or volume 

It’s quite a lot to take note of when reading a food label, right? We did some research to help you interpret and understand food labels a bit better.

Handy Hints to Better Understand Food Labels

Knowing how to read nutrition labels has become a global intervention to promote a healthier diet and to reduce non-communicable diseases.

43% of South African deaths are caused by non-communicable diseases.

Healthy and Happy
Now is an opportune moment to jump on the intervention wagon and give yourself a healthier body by eating better - Image by Roman Odintsov on Pexels

Here are some helpful hints you to use as you educate yourself around reading food labels more accurately:

Understand the Nutrients on the Food Label

Energy/Kilojoules (kJ)

This indicates the energy value you will ingest when you eat the food and is related to the specific serving size indicated on the label.

Glycaemic carbohydrates 

This is the total carbohydrate count of the product that is derived from sugars and starchy/complex carbohydrates.

Total sugar

Generally listed as ‘Carbohydrates of which sugars’, total sugars refer to the amount of sugar that naturally occurs in the product plus additional sugars added to the product.  Natural occurring sugars are fructose (fruits) and milk (lactose) while added or artificial sugars will be listed as sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, invert syrup, maltose and honey.

Take note: Regardless of where the carbohydrates are derived from, they will increase your blood glucose levels. This means that consuming too many carbohydrates can lead to too much sugar in the blood, resulting in an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease and nerve problems.


The fat category on labels is broken down into total fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fat) and trans-fat. The less saturated fats you consume the better.

According to the Heart Foundation it is advisable to eat less than 3g per serving and rather go for foods that are higher in poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Trans-fat is considered the unhealthiest fat you can eat so it is best to stay away from those altogether.

Convenient Foods
The downside to convenient food could be what you put into your body - Image by Rfstudio on Pexels

Dietary Fibre

Fibre are parts found in food or plants that helps your body process food while remaining indigestible. Let me simplify, you can see it as the ‘roughage’ that is good for your digestive system and helps to keep it healthy while assisting with softer stool formation. The recommended daily intake for adults is 25-30 grams per day.


Sodium is a chemical element that occurs naturally in many foods we eat. Our bodies only need a small amount of sodium each day to function properly. Sodium and salt are often seen as the same thing, but they are not. Salt is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. 

Too much salt is linked to various diseases including heart disease and high blood pressure. It is therefore advisable to limit your salt and sodium intake as much as possible. According to guidelines it is important for you to limit your salt intake to 1 teaspoon (5g) or 2000mg sodium per day.

Vitamins and Minerals

These are micronutrients that our body needs to function properly. They can either occur naturally in food or are sometimes added to food. On the label they are normally indicated as “%NRV” which shows you the daily requirement you are consuming per serving.

Attractive Food Labelling
Food labels are designed to encourage purchase, but they are also useful in helping you choose the healthiest option - Image by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

Examine the Nutrition Table on the Food Label

Having this basic understanding of the nutrients will allow you to read and interpret the nutritional table on the label. The prescribed format will make it easier for you to quickly assess nutritional value once you are used to it.

Here's a nice example of a nutritional table and how to read it.

Read the Ingredients List

Apart from the nutritional table, there will be a list of ingredients that occur naturally or are added to the product. This is just as important because often there are hidden ingredients in the product that are not listed on the nutritional table which might be harmful to your health.

The ingredients list on labels will help you identify any harmful fats, sugars and preservatives in products. In fact, we cannot go into too much detail because there are so many different types. This can be an important part of analysing the product, especially if you have an underlying disease or allergy that could be triggered by the wrong ingredient.

My advice would be to jump in and do some research of your own around the ingredients you’d like to avoid, make a list and take it with you next time you go grocery shopping.

Avoid sugar
Most carbonated drinks contain sugar and should be avoided - Image by Rostislav Budzan on Unsplash

An Alternative Way of Reading Food Labels

Food labels play an important part in helping consumers make more conscious and healthy decisions when buying food. For this reason, the UK traffic light system (red, yellow, green) is an easier and more helpful approach to help consumers find the nutritional value quicker and more effortlessly.

Below is an example of the traffic light system.

Uk traffic light system
Image Credit: phc.vector (

Front of packaging labels are not yet mandatory in South Africa, but they can help consumers in a big way. Not only is it easier to get an overview on nutritional information, but it will also assist consumers in making healthier food choices. Let’s hope that South Africa gives the green light to the implementation of a similar labelling system in the near future.

Have you learned something new about food labels today? If you have then it's mission accomplished from our side.

Healthy Family food
Eating habits are established from a very young age. Can you teach your kids to become inquisitive about food labels - Image by August de Richelieu on Pexels

You are what you eat so it is best to know what you are eating so that you know what you are going to become?

Happy label reading and keep on making the best food choices for your health.

Need a Nutrition teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5 - 1 vote(s)


Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.